Take a trip to a Fantasy Island in the Hall of Flowers

It’s been three years since the competitive theme gardeners who live for the thrill of transforming a former airline hangar into a floral wonderland every summer have been able to practice their strange, magical hobby.

For two seasons, the buzzkill that is COVID-19 shut down the Hall of Flowers, the largest themed flower show west of the Mississippi and an undisputed highlight of the Sonoma County Fair for generations.

It was a big disappointment for fair regulars but even more so for the competitors — both amateur and professional — who spend months planning and then amassing flowers, trees, plants and elaborate props for floral vignettes sure to transport Hall visitors to other worlds.

This year, pandemic-weary fairgoers desperate to start traveling again can take an around-the-world trip to more than a dozen “Islands of Adventure” inspired by TV and movies — no passport necessary.

Stops include Treasure Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, Isla Nublar from “Jurassic Park” and Neverland from “Peter Pan.” Only people of a certain age might recognize “Gilligan’s Island,” inspired by the mid-60s sitcom, and “Fantasy Island,” complete with arriving seaplane, inspired by the 1970s show of the same name.

Dayna Justus, a veteran professional competitor who started out years ago as an amateur competitor, is again teaming up with her brother, Shawn Husar of Sebastopol. For their 1,200-square-foot garden, Husar, an HVAC installer by day, has been working in his off-hours in the hall to build a realistic shipwreck inspired by something he once saw at Disneyworld.

The whole family pitches in. Justus’ husband, Alex, takes care of the special effects, and sons Alex, 17, and John, 12, are part of the crew, too. Husar’s wife, Emily, and daughter Jasmine, 14, and even grandma, Arley Nelson, as well as family friends, are all part of the team. The family has collaborated on two gardens in the past, but it’s taken all their energy and resources to pull off this year’s entry.

“We’re just trying to get through this one,” said Justus, laughing, her arms caked with dirt. “Two years off is a long time, and I feel like I have a lot of extra COVID weight.”

The extended clan has been putting in eight- to 10-hour days in the hall, and when they’re not in the hall, they’re gathering plants in what they describe as a scavenger hunt, from their own yards and other sources. They have what amount to their own home nurseries just for the fair. The kids also make junior gardens.

“It feels so good being back,” Justus said. “Last year was depressing. That’s all I can say. But I’m glad we’re moving forward and hope we never do anything like that again. It wasn’t right for the kids.”

For Greg Duncan, the creative director of the Hall of Flowers since 1994, returning after so long to the empty, 27,000-square-foot former airplane hanger three months ago proved daunting. He had spent the last three years working on his own garden, canning and “learning how to make sourdough like everyone else.”

Now he had to transform the old Quonset hut that has been home to the Hall of Flowers since 1949 into “A Tropical Paradise.”

“I came into this big, empty building again and thought, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ But within about a week, I fell into a rhythm,” said Duncan, 73.

Just before the pandemic hit, he had closed his longtime design business that is specialized in designing and fabricating themed environments for amusement parks, stores and specialty museums. His work has appeared at Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, The Haunted Castle at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and a wax museum in Hawaii. He received an Emmy Award for his work on PBS’ “Dr. Science’s National Science Test.”

Duncan has a smaller crew this year to transform the hall, but three stalwarts returned to help him move dirt, build props, paint murals and create the water features that dazzle fairgoers.

“We just went for it, and we’ve had a good time doing it. I’ve been getting my steps in every day. I don’t have to go to the gym or anything. So I feel pretty darn good,” Duncan said in the days leading up to the final crunch, when exhibitors work around the clock installing their gardens and making sure everything is perfect before Wednesday’s Hall of Flowers Preview Party.

This weekend is a mad dash to the finish. When the clock strikes midnight Monday evening, everything must be done, no exceptions.

Smoke and mirrors

Like a movie set, the Hall is an exercise in illusion.

The centerpiece of all 15,000 square feet of gardens this year is a 16-foot rock as wide as a sequoia that looms from a pool filled with flowering plants and surrounded by palms. Perched atop are two 8- and 10-foot Tiki heads that look like they could have been retrieved from a South Pacific ruin.

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